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Plenty of couples visit the same hair salons, but our ethnic backgrounds distinguish my husband and me on this front. He’s white, and I’m black. And like churches, hair salons in the United States largely remain segregated by race, with few questioning the custom. But in diverse cities such as my home of Los Angeles multiracial salons are slowly cropping up. It’s not difficult to find salons with both stylists and clientele from a range of racial backgrounds. The trend has the potential to counter stereotypes, and allows salon owners to expand their businesses and mixed-race families to get their hair coiffed in the same place.
Plenty of couples visit the same hair salons, but our ethnic backgrounds distinguish my husband and me on this front. He’s white, and I’m black.
The news that such salons exist shocked my friend because she lives across the country in a small town where blacks and whites typically don’t get their hair styled together. But that’s not just the case in small towns. It’s an historic pattern that plays out nationally. In the 21st century, it’s perfectly acceptable for black customers to be turned away from "white" salons or to expect crummy service from them, as Rebecca Carroll pointed out in a 2012 Jezebel piece called "The Blacker the Hair, the Rarer the Cut." A black woman, Carroll struggled to get a decent cut in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, of all places.
As African Americans find themselves marginalized in white salons, traditional black salons have been celebrated, spawning films such as the box office hit Barbershop and its underwhelming knock off Beauty Shop. Reporters so often head to black churches and salons seeking an African American perspective that the practice has become cliché.
While Carroll could have traveled outside of Williamsburg for a haircut, blacks in communities with scant numbers of African Americans may not have that option, leaving them fearful that no area stylist will be able to care for their hair. Having lived in El Paso, Texas; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Brighton, England; I can relate. However, it was in racially diverse Pasadena, California, a city with plenty of black beauty shops, that I visited my first multiracial salon.
After moving away from the state for a spell, I’d returned to California and was on the hunt for a new hair place. Strolling down a quaint block of Old Town Pasadena, a hair salon, all windows in front, caught my eye. Inside, a black woman and an Asian man styled clients side by side. I stood staring at this uncommon sight a little too long because the woman rushed outside and handed me her card. "Call me," she said, and I did. That was eight years ago.
Inside, a black woman and an Asian man styled clients side by side. I stood staring at this uncommon sight a little too long.
Before then, I’d never heard of a salon where black, Asian, white and Latino hairdressers worked in tandem. I grew up in Chicago primarily visiting black shops, with occasional jaunts to chain salons that featured a single stylist who served African Americans. But these hairdressers didn’t always provide a full range of services, such as relaxers, to black patrons, so I opted for black salons.
Thanks to Hollywood, black beauty shops have become the stuff of legend. From watching Barbershop and the like one would think that each visit to a black hair salon guaranteed high drama — raucous political debates, lovers’ quarrels, visits from loan sharks. Hell, I’m still waiting for my chance to help a sexy but troubled barber like Michael Ealy (Ricky in Barbershop) spurn the street life.
Leave it to Chris Rock and Wanda Sykes to paint the most accurate picture of my salon-going experience growing up. The comedians paired up on HBO’s now defunct Chris Rock Show to perform a skit called "Make You Wait Hair Salon" about a black beauty shop that takes an obscenely long time to serve patrons. The motto, they boast, is "don’t make no plans unless you want to break yo’ plans." An elderly woman dies waiting for her hair to be styled. Another client sits so long she reads every back issue of Jet magazine, "from when King got shot to when Tupac got shot."
This is hyperbole, of course, but I do have not-so-fond memories of spending entire Saturdays at black beauty shops in Chicago as a teen. No amount of lively discussion and funny banter compensates for that. On the other hand, it’s unfair to make generalizations about black salons. After adolescence, I managed to find plenty that served clients in a timely manner. I still patronize black salons on occasion, and a black man owns the multiracial salon I go to now.
[As they work on my hair, I might see a black stylist working on a Latina’s hair or an Asian stylist tending to a white woman’s tresses. This sight feels revolutionary,
While my current stylist is black, his assistants — who wash, condition and prep my hair for various processes — are not. As they work on my hair, I might see a black stylist working on a Latina’s hair or an Asian stylist tending to a white woman’s tresses. This sight feels revolutionary, not just because blacks are involved but because everyone else is involved as well. Black hair gets a lot of attention for being "different," but I’ve had Asian friends who prefer Asian stylists because they doubt others will properly care for their thick and straight manes. In the Latino neighborhood in Northeast L.A. where I live, signs on beauty parlors note that they specialize in long hair care, as the Latinas here tend to sport flowing locks.
Salons with stylists who care for all hair types level the playing field in the hair care industry. Black hairdressers, such as Glen Etienne of DeLux Salon in Brooklyn, believe a double standard exists in cosmetology. African American stylists must master care for all hair types to become licensed, while non-black stylists can remain clueless about black hair, he told the fashion watchdog site Glammonitor in May.
"For the actual state board test, they want to see techniques to cut white hair," Etienne said. "You can cut black hair good enough, but you better know how to cut white hair. Any white person could walk into a black salon and get their hair done properly."
My stylist, who owns the eponymous Brenton Lee Salon in South Pasadena, California, thinks salons should cater to everyone. This outlook benefits not only clients but stylists as well, he said.
African American stylists must master care for all hair types to become licensed, while non-black stylists can remain clueless about black hair.
"Having an atmosphere where everyone’s welcome, where almost anybody can come in, that’s huge for me," Lee said. "It’s also important for the team of stylists. Working on diverse clientele, you learn more, you see more, you’re open to a lot more. You’re not just stuck in a box."
As a business owner, it doesn’t hurt either, given that "nowadays everyone is mixed with some kind of something," said Lee, whose salon opened in 2012. The more hair types your stylists can care for, the more revenue they can generate.
Beyond the financial rewards, multiracial salons allow families to bond. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen white mothers drop off their biracial daughters at black beauty shops and head elsewhere to maintain their locks. Segregated salons rob these mother-daughters of the chance to get pampered together, an ordinary but memory-making experience that mothers and daughters of the same race largely take for granted.
In addition to allowing mixed-race families to get styled in one place, multiracial salons break down stereotypes. Under Lee’s care, I’ve yet to have a white patron make an inappropriate comment about my hair. No client has asked to touch my hair, or worse, done so without permission. So, why is it that I’ve had these experiences on the street but not in multiracial hair salons? In a setting where people of all races get their hair styled together, hair becomes hair, not black hair or white hair or Asian hair. Black women’s hair loses its mystery when you see stylists tending to it on a regular basis. It’s difficult to "other" the familiar.
"I see hair as just a texture, whether it’s straight or curly," Lee said.
Lee, for one, doesn’t view hair through a racial lens.
"I see hair as just a texture, whether it’s straight or curly," he said.
Speaking of curly, my small town friend has a head full of ringlets. Both of her parents are black, but her locks bear a strong resemblance to Keri Russell’s in their bouncy unaltered state. With those two in mind, it’s hard to pinpoint where white hair ends and black hair begins. They only strengthen Lee’s point that hair shouldn’t be categorized by race but by texture.
Since "white hair" and "black hair" overlap, isn’t it high time that hair care for everyone became an industry standard?
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She’s written for several news outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and About.com.